The Defense Department is taking steps to ensure that remains of fallen servicemembers are always treated with the utmost respect, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters late last week.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates learned of problems with the military's cremation process today, and he took immediate action, Morrell said. The department is launching an investigation into processes for handling remains of fallen warriors at the military's sole mortuary on Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
"The families of the fallen have the secretary's deepest apology," Morrell said. "Those still serving have his commitment that all members of the armed forces will be treated with the dignity and respect that their sacrifice demands."
Morrell made the announcement at a Pentagon press conference held after senior leaders became aware of a complaint by a servicemember who works in the Pentagon about the cremation process. The servicemember complained after witnessing the cremation of a soldier's body which was returned this week from Iraq.
Because there is no cremation facility at the base, the Dover Port Mortuary contracted two local funeral homes to perform cremations. One of the mortuaries is not co-located with the funeral home and is in an industrial park in Kent County, Del. It has three incinerators, one marked for human remains, the other for pets, Morrell said.
While the facility is fully licensed, Gates believes the site and signs "are insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," Morrell said.
"There is no mission more important than the dignified return of our fallen heroes to their families and the Dover Air Force Base team has performed this mission with great care for a number of years," Morrell said.
With Gates' approval, Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne has directed the mortuary to stop contracting the off-site crematorium and use only those crematoriums that are co-located with licensed funeral homes, Morrell said. Also, there must now be a military presence during off-base processes of funeral home facilities, he said.
Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Duncan McNabb will follow up on all actions and coordinate with Army staff. David Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, will review DoD policies on handling the remains of service members. They will determine how many soldiers' bodies were handled by the crematorium, Morrell said. He noted that while "probably more often than not" servicemembers' remains are sent to their hometowns for cremations.
It is not unusual for crematoriums to serve both humans and pets, Morrell said. "My understanding is that it's common practice."
Morrell stressed that "we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever that any human remains were ever mistreated." While it is permissible to cremate fallen soldiers in a facility that also cremates pets, Gates believes it is inappropriate, he said.
The servicemember who complained "did what he should have done, which was to report it to us," said Lt. Gen. David Huntoon, director of Army staff.
"The senior leadership of all the services holds the mission of returning our fallen comrades of the highest order of importance," Huntoon said.
Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, director of Air Force staff, said the mortuary began contracting the facilities in 2001. Klotz said he will travel to Dover tomorrow to look into the matter. Because Dover is "a relatively small city," the mortuary is limited in its ability to contract cremation services, he said.
By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service